Support Transgender Students: Use Leadership Moves
by Ken Turner, OSPI’s Health & Physical Education Program Supervisor
The contest is over in just minutes as Kailyn Clay is pinned to the mat and a new Texas high school women’s champion, Mack Beggs, is crowned. The story would not have made national news except that Mack is a transgender boy wrestling female opponents. Max’s biological sex is female and his gender identity is male. Max and his parents advocated for him to wrestle other boys.
However, Texas Athletics enacted and enforced its birth certificate policy, which prevented Max from competing with other boys. Some parents and coaches had argued that testosterone doses given to Max as he transitioned gave him an unfair advantage in the competition, but the science behind the medication indicate the amount was too little to give Max a muscular advantage over his female opponents. Like Mack, transgender students around the country are feeling both oppression and support within our schools.
Transgender students make up some of our more vulnerable populations to bullying, depression, and suicide in our schools. In early 2017, the Trump Administration reversed earlier protections for these students through U.S. Department of Education actions. At the same time, North Carolina and other states were creating legislation limiting the rights and protections of transgender and other Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer (LGBTQ+) students. This February, in a leadership move, newly elected Washington State Superintendent Chris Reykdal issued a press release reinforcing Washington State’s five-year-old policy on protections for transgender students, including:
• “School districts should allow students to use the restroom that is consistent with their gender identity consistently asserted at school.”
• “No student … should be required to use a locker room that conflicts with his or her gender identity.” (OSPI 2017)
You might be thinking, “How does this help me talk to kids or students? While important, I am not comfortable.”
But younger generations are shown to be more supportive of diversity in sexual orientation and gender identity than their parents and grandparents were.
While some subjects may be taboo at home, students are talking about them at school and perhaps interacting with transgender students themselves. Regardless of how you feel about LGBTQ+ issues, students are grappling with these challenges on a daily basis. In fact, a student in your classroom may be thinking that they are more like a girl or boy, even though they were born with different corresponding genitalia.
Inside the Health Classroom
One helpful tool in understanding transgender issues is separating the definitions of Gender Identity from Sexual Orientation. In this middle school Family Life and Sexual Health (FLASH) lesson, students receive index cards with terms on them:
Students then receive 13 different definition cards that may say:
________ is a deep feeling people have about whether they are a boy, girl, both or neither.
________ is determined by whether a person is attracted to the same gender, another gender, or all genders. (Public Health 2016)
In groups of 2–4, students discuss and match the definitions to the terms. Through this process of student collaboration, they learn that these four terms all have different meanings even though they are often confused and misused. This is a clear example of one learning outcome:
Distinguish between biological sex, gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation.
This outcome helps students show competency in Health Standard 1 from the Washington State Health and Physical Education standards:
Students will comprehend concepts related to health promotion and disease prevention to enhance health.
Another useful resource is an educational video series created by Dr. Maya Adam through Stanford University. This sequential vignette of 19 YouTube videos, each about 4 minutes long, introduces students to transgender issues and breaks down differences between identity and orientation. This video series can give educators tools to discuss these topics in the classroom and engage students in a dynamic way.
As educators or education advocates, we need to create and support inclusive learning environments where students can ask questions and educators feel comfortable and confident enough to engage in the topics. You do not have to be an expert in LGBTQ+ issues to create an inclusive learning environment. I know first-hand how uncomfortable this experience can be, especially if one is unfamiliar about all of the populations they instruct.
Several years ago as a college adjunct lecturer, an Army veteran student transitioned from male to female halfway through the academic quarter in my anatomy class. At first, I struggled with calling the student ‘her’ and felt awkward even interacting with the student; I was clearly outside my comfort zone. I soon empathized with her that she was undergoing a great deal of stress and alienation, and I ratcheted up my support for her in front of the class. While I had several gay and lesbian friends, I was ignorant of the transgender community and had not made any effort to understand them or gather resources to assist my educational practice.
Even though not all schools or districts can teach Sexual Health in the classroom, let us make the leadership moves that our students need us to initiate.
Leadership moves are not always greeted with enthusiasm from parents or our colleagues, however they represent the difficult stances that utilizing an equity lens on our educational practice requires. We can support every student in our class and school because students who are seen for who they are will be more successful in any (learning) environment.
For more transgender educational resource materials:
Welcoming Schools (free lesson plans to support gender expansive students and create bias-free learning environments)
Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI). (2017, February 23). Reykdal: State Laws Will Continue to Protect Transgender Students [Press release]. Retrieved March 28, 2017.
Public Health — Seattle & King County. (2016). Middle School FLASH, Second Edition. Seattle, WA: Public Health — Seattle & King County.
A longer version of this article is featured in SHAPE Washington’s 2017 Summer Journal.
For more information about SHAPE Washington, visit www.shapewa.org.
Ken Turner is an avid trail runner, Stand-Up paddler, cyclist, and Nordic ski patroler. He is a former ropes course manager, college physical educator, Outward Bound instructor, and high school science teacher before coming to OSPI as the Health and Physical Education supervisor. He has degrees from both Georgia Tech and the University of Georgia and recently earned his Doctorate of Education through the Leadership for Learning program at the University of Washington. Ken has a seventh grade son in Seattle Public Schools, an extremely sweet Golden Doodle, and he famously bakes extra-large calzones when not working or playing in the mountains.